Like all of us there, he is old.
He sits at a table, eating, alone.
“May we join you?” I ask,
tentatively, unsure of his response.
“Oh yes, please do,” he replies.
“Our names are Jim and Annette Anderson,” I tell him.
“I am Warren James, and I am gay,” he counters.
I do my best not to show surprise,
not that I am shocked at his words,
only that his coming out is so abrupt, so unpredictable.
Why? I wonder: is he so tuned to offended reactions,
or sudden, embarrassed, silences,
too much experience of shock and rejection,
that perhaps it is an act of kindness?
Is he saying, “I give you a choice, my friend.
You may accept or reject me,
but let’s get past that right away,
so we don’t waste each others’ time”?
Perhaps, but for us it is the beginning
of a lifetime friendship,
although, sadly, what remains of his lifetime is to be brief.
He talks openly later about his youth,
so many decades before.
“Did your family accept you?” I ask.
“Oh yes, they were very kind,” he responds.
I express my happiness, thinking of how families often responded,
back in a time when laws made it possible for parents
to commit gay children to long and brutal mental confinement,
and when all gay male intimacy was a felony.
I am aware, as our friendship grows,
that I am privileged to know a warrior,
who long had confronted and fought back
against unjust laws, discrimination, hate.
I learn that he and his partner, a noted Portland physician,
were leaders in the Portland gay community,
founders of an early gay rights organization,
editors of a gay newsletter that grew in importance and influence.
I imagine Warren living through the first throes of HIV anxiety,
caring for friends as they die mysterious, excruciating deaths.
I imagine him walking in early gay pride parades
jeered and spit upon.
I imagine his feeling attitudes and laws slowly changing,
his acute grief when his partner dies,
short of approaching victories,
when walkers in gay pride parades are cheered, not jeered,
and die-hard antagonists are marginalized
together with their savage signs and chants,
and marriage at last becomes possible.
I imagine his satisfaction, his joy, that younger people
reap the solid benefits of all those victories.
Almost as surprising as our first meeting,
a few months further on, he reveals his cancer,
and we sit together often as his health declines.
I visit him in his tiny studio apartment on a Friday morning,
now thin, wasted, warmed by a worn blanket,
his voice depleted as his body.
I wish him well, thank him for our friendship,
assure him of my admiration,
not the first time—nor do I think it to be the last.
A hospice nurse finds him dead, alone, later that day.
The old warrior, the veteran, has left us.
Annette and I moved from there to CherryWood Village soon after. A new friend invited me to speak at her church, Eastrose Fellowship, where I saw in a bulletin the announcement of a meeting to take place in Warren James House. So this, I thought, is the good church of which he spoke so often, with much appreciation, where he had been accepted and safe and loved, and ultimately honored. I was thrilled for him and for kind people who welcomed him and gave him a spiritual home—and I felt there, easily, the warmth of home as well.